Pete Dougherty and Bob McGinn talk Nick Perry and the Packers offense after Green Bay's win over the Detroit Lions. (Sept. 25, 2016)
GREEN BAY - Just imagine where the Green Bay Packers would have been if Matthew Stafford had a legitimate running game and even more time to survey the field.
The Packers have Nick Perry to thank on both counts. Without him, it’s unlikely the Detroit Lions could have been stopped Sunday at Lambeau Field.
In what probably was the finest performance of the outside linebacker’s five-year career, Perry was everywhere and at the most critical junctures in the Packers’ vital 34-27 triumph before a crowd of 78,411 anxious fans.
“He is a stud,” said tackle David Bakhtiari, interrupting Perry’s interview. “The man is a stud.”
Perry always looked like Tarzan but too often ended up playing like Jane. Injuries were his constant companion, but even when healthy he only flashed the potential that led the Packers to draft him with the 28th pick in 2012.
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Through three weeks, he ranks with defensive tackle Mike Daniels as the Packers’ best player.
“It’s a combination of things,” Perry said “Being healthy. Being able to learn a lot more and really work my craft in the offseason and training camp.
“It was never about if I could play or not. You look back, there was always plays that I made over the years. Here and there.
“Then, the next thing you know, boom, I’ve got a shoulder problem or I broke my foot. There was never a doubt I could do the things I do.
“It’s becoming effortless now. I want to be the best ever. I’m just excited.”
Jim Bob Cooter, the Lions’ inventive second-year offensive coordinator, really wanted to run it even though featured back Ameer Abdullah went on injured reserve last week.
On the first series, Cooter ran Theo Riddick five times. On the third series, rookie backup Dwayne Washington carried three times on the first four plays. On the fourth series, all four first-down plays were runs.
For some reason, the Lions kept running at Perry. As much as anything, it was Perry’s ability to defeat it all that enabled the Packers to take what appeared to be a commanding lead, 31-10, at halftime.
Riddick’s five carries on an opening 15-play drive lost a total of 10 yards. Perry played around or through blockers either to make the tackle or assist on four of them.
“He gives tackles and guards a problem,” linebacker Joe Thomas said. “He can move well. He can set the edge. He’s a big, physical guy.”
When the Lions reached the Green Bay 17, Perry dismissed an attempted block by tight end Eric Ebron to throw down Riddick for minus-3 before helping force Stafford into a third-down incompletion.
A few minutes later, Perry batted down a pass and the Lions had their only three-and-out of the game.
INSIDER: Thumbs up to Perry, down to Randall
Each time, an offense basically moribund in the first two games benefited from favorable field position to score touchdowns for a 21-3 lead. It was 31-3 late in the first half.
Perry blew across the line of scrimmage so fast early in the third quarter that he looked stunned to see Riddick in his grasp. Instead of perhaps a seven-yard loss, Riddick ricocheted away for seven as the Lions drove for a second straight touchdown.
The fourth quarter saw Perry begin to dominate as a pass rusher.
Ebron’s 13-yard reception, which would have set up the Lions at the Green Bay 15, was wiped out when Taylor Decker, the rookie left tackle, was penalized for holding Perry.
Two plays later, Perry beat Decker outside for a sack, forcing Detroit (1-2) to settle for a field goal.
With the Packers no longer moving the ball and the Lions within striking range at 34-20, it was Perry who chased down Stafford for his second sack. That forced the Lions to punt, and even though they scored a touchdown three minutes later Green Bay’s decisive four-minute offense denied Detroit another possession and a shot to force overtime.
It was a big day for the reticent Perry, a native of Detroit, on another count. Coach Mike McCarthy designated him as the player to address the team this week just before player introductions and the national anthem.
BOX SCORE: Packers 34, Lions 27
“It doesn’t even matter what he said,” said Christian Ringo, the second-year defensive tackle. “C’mon, man. He got me pumped. The quiet ones have the most effect.”
Riddick, a 201-pound scatback, was fortunate even to reach the line of scrimmage on most of his 10 carries. The Lions’ 50 yards in 23 rushes (2.2) increased the Packers’ scant rushing yield to 128, their lowest total since statistics began being recorded in 1933.
“For a long time, the strength of our defense was our back end,” Daniels said. “You can kind of see that shifting.
“We need to get the whole defense jelling together. The back end will get it together. They have a lot of pride.”
Stafford, 28, continued to show evidence of being on the verge of elite status even though Calvin Johnson is in retirement, his offensive line isn’t very good and the Lions’ depth chart at running back might be as weak as there is.
“He’s one of the best quarterbacks in the National Football League,” said linebacker Jake Ryan. “He’s got a great arm.”
Even when coverage was tight, Stafford threw with remarkable precision and velocity inside and outside. He got the ball out of his hand. There were none of the impulsive throws that marred his early years.
Stafford’s job was made much easier by the Packers’ absentee list on defense: Clay Matthews, Sam Shields, Morgan Burnett, Letroy Guion, Datone Jones.
If Ebron had hung on to the ball for a seven-yard completion instead of having it ripped from his grasp by Damarious Randall for what was scored an interception, Stafford’s passer rating would have been 125.3 rather than 112.3.
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With Daniels effectively double-teamed and Julius Peppers ineffective, the pass rush was pretty much up to Perry.
“He knew what the situation was, with Clay and everybody,” nose tackle Kenny Clark said. “He knew he had to come in there and have a game. Tackles for loss. Sacks.
“He’s got a lot of stuff behind him. He can power rush you. He can get around the corner on you quick. Strong, too. People don’t realize how strong he is. Plays hard, too.”
Of the 21 defensive players on the 46-man active roster, eight were rookies and just three – Peppers, Daniels and Perry – had five or more years experience. Winning with a kiddie corps made the victory even more rewarding for the Packers.
“I was proud of a lot of our guys,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “We have good energy as a football team. The exciting part about it is we have a lot of growth in front of us.”
The Packers made mince meat in the first half of a defense missing its best player (Ziggy Ansah) and Milwaukee’s DeAndre Levy, who had tremendous seasons at inside linebacker in 2013-14.
Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin was hamstrung at outside linebacker, where Levy and backup Antwione Williams both sat and ex-Jaguar Thurston Armbrister played so poorly early that he was benched in favor of Zaviar Gooden, who was signed at mid-week.
Unlike a week ago in Minnesota, Aaron Rodgers usually had all day to read the defense and pick out receivers or, better yet, select a gap in the tepid rush and extend the action.
Rodgers threw a number of bull’s-eyes to Jordy Nelson and a variety of targets, compiling a rating of 129.3 to shatter his 14-game streak of being under 100.
“We just couldn’t slow him down,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “Rodgers was hot. We couldn’t stop them.”
On the four or five times Austin deemed it necessary to blitz, Rodgers smelled it out and made the Lions pay. Eddie Lacy barged through the Lions’ undersized, no-talent linebacker corps for 103 yards in 17 attempts.
After rushing just 38.7 percent of the time in a 1-1 start, McCarthy increased his run rate to 48 percent Sunday.
Rodgers attempted just 24 passes against a highly vulnerable defense. If the Packers had managed to blow a 28-point lead and lose, McCarthy never would have heard the end of it.
“Frankly, we would have liked to open up more in the passing game,” he said. “This was the (balanced) path that was important to go with. It was the best thing for our football team.”
The emphasis all week in the building was defending home turf after three divisional defeats a year ago. Minnesota’s upset victory in Carolina left the Packers one game in arrears in the NFC North entering their bye week.
“We feel good about where we’re at right now,” said Peppers. “We’ll get them (the Vikings) next time.”